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Is South Africa’s e-toll system the new dompas?

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Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu/African News Agency (ANA) – The silent confusion about the future of the e-tolls needs no clarity but scrapping it all together to free economic mobility in Gauteng, says the writer.

By Koffi M Kouakou

The former apartheid regime mastered the ability to control the geography of mobility and re-engineer the economic freedom of its citizens. It did it so successfully by imposing the pass laws, a dominant feature of the racial segregation system, which severely limited the movements of the non-white populace and forbade them from holding higher business positions within companies.

The pass laws were a form of tax on mobility that shrunk the economic opportunities for those who were forced to carry them.

Central to these pass laws was the dreadful dompas, or dumb pass, a hated passbook symbol that confined the black majority and other non-whites within restricted and designated areas. The failures to produce it always led to a brutal arrest and harsh imprisonment.

These confining regulations created discontent among the black and brown populations and sparked defiance campaigns to oppose the dreadful pass laws that culminated into the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960.

Economic growth is fundamentally influenced by the geography of mobility which includes the movement of goods, people and ideas. Indeed, constrained mobility slows economic growth, freedom and liberty. The opposite is also true. And the apartheid regime used this restriction with ruthless efficiency to design racial identities, redirect economic wealth, and power and engineer social mobility at the expense of the black majority.

While the system of pass laws was abolished in South Africa in 1986, many of its attributes remain.

Today what is more paradoxical is that successive South African governments proposed a toll road fee system across the country that taxes mobility. One of the most infamous ones, engineered by the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), is helping to re-enact implicitly the same restricted dompas laws on its citizens without due process of consultation and a deeper understanding of its implications.

In addition to the repeated delayed launch dates of the GFIP, it managed to survive with exorbitant tariffs to the dismay and outrage of commuters, citizens, businesses, unions and political parties.

The good news is that the proposed tariff hikes have been hotly contested and remain on hold after a toll-free the committee deliberated on their stratospheric levels and their potential inflationary consequences on road users.

Bravely so, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) was among civic groups that led a successful, memorable and commendable fight against the GFIP for years.

The GFIP has ill-articulated the reasons for these high tariffs. It is unclear also if the objective of the high fees is to justify the improvements of the freeways, to ease the growing traffic congestions within Gauteng to redirect flows elsewhere or to pay for the long-term costs of the whopping bill of the freeway improvements.

So far, none of the reasons given is convincing to the public which believes it is being grossly defrauded.

The aggressive deployment of the toll road system with gantries in SA, while a fashionable new policy transport decision making, identically masquerades as the former apartheid-style spatial engineering policy instrument that restricted the mobility of most South Africans. It is the new dompas.

The willful blindness and unintended consequences of such a toll road system is devastating for users, citizens and the economy in the short and medium terms. Indeed, they will bring a lot of miseries. Its impact on the livelihood of commuters is the same as the dompas had on social life in the apartheid era.

Their effects restrict the movements of citizens and impose extra transport costs and undue limits on their ability to access jobs and better opportunities. They impede human rights, curtail economic freedom, and social interactions and add new tax burdens on commuters.

Public policy failures abound these days. This new freeway tariff policy is one of them. It has been poorly assessed. It needs redesigning because it will constraint mobility, freedom of movement, and choke economic liberty in a time when more movements are so much needed to stimulate economical growth in the province and the country.

More traffic on Gauteng freeways is to be encouraged to help stimulate economic growth. Not the opposite.

To restrict the economic mobility of the majority by imposing stiff tariff restrictions on their movements was poorly considered. South Africans can’t afford this policy blunder.

Indeed, the new toll road system is a bad and dumb idea. It is ill-timed and misplaced.

It should be scrapped or phased in over five years with viable public transport alternatives.

Freeway, freedom or dompas – that’s the urgent choice overtaxed commuters’ face. Our choice is clear – freedom and freeway.

The difference between these two words is the fundamental notion of being “free”, the prefix that determines the ability to move around and exercise our human rights of movement and cherish open options for economic freedom and liberty.

The reason the wide-open roads are called freeways and not tollways are the sense and rights that they confer on travellers and how they mimic economic freedom and liberty.

There is no need to limit economic growth. The dompas is dead. Or is it?

I wrote the above many years ago, at the heights of the Gauteng e-toll saga, for a local editor who never shared it with his readers.

Strangely enough, the saga and its detrimental consequences on mobility and the economy in Gauteng continue to hold true.

Commuters are still quietly being charged a hefty toll tax to move about.

So, it is still worth talking about it, again. Reminding policymakers to get rid of this disastrous transport project in the province and free it from the unacceptable rent-seeking absurdity it represents is a must.

The ineffective public transport systems fail to become a powerful transformative social mobility and critical driver for economic growth. Therefore, unhinged mobility does three things. It allows people to freely move about, helps to reduce the costs of transport and best of all it favours business and economic growth.

The reality is that the freedom to move about is also an economic must prevail and inform transport and other sectoral policies. The more people move around at no or less cost with great business ideas, the more they are likely to engage in economic activities that help the economy.

How much more so than freeing mobility to spur economic growth.

While a definite new funding model for the project and political decisions to scrap the GFIP is considered with treasury, the ANC and the Union Buildings, the general discontent and confusion about it are still palpable as the social consensus about it is clear – get rid of it.

Credit is due to civil society, unions, opposition parties, and even the African National Congress in Gauteng have pressured government to do away with the system, as motorists refused to pay for it.

Two dedicated advocacy groups, the Automobile Association (AA) and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), a civic group solely established to fight the GFIP led the popular outrage. They must be commanded. Interestingly, Outa’s success compelled it to even shapeshift into a worthwhile political party.

The silent confusion about the future of the e-tolls needs no clarity but scrapping it all together to free economic mobility in Gauteng.

In fact, it would be a good gesture to do so in an election year given the deep angst about it. If not, it could be catastrophic for the African National Congress to revive the e-toll project in Gauteng. The consequences will be dire at the voting booths.

The e-toll looks like a dead duck. I say, scrap it!

Kouakou, Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre of Africa China, University of Johannesburg

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.